Yet another big tech baron is beckoning workers back to the office. Google is doubling down on enforcing in-person work, according to a new company notice.
“For those who are remote and who live near a Google office, we hope you’ll consider switching to a hybrid work schedule. Our offices are where you’ll be most connected to Google’s community,” writes chief people officer Fiona Cicconi in an internal memo obtained by news outlets this week. “Going forward, we’ll consider new remote work requests by exception only.” According to the note, employees not already designated as remote will now have their badge swipes tracked to ensure they’re appearing in the office three days per week; managers can factor their absences into performance reviews.
It seems that even big tech—one sector with the resources and tools to make remote work effective—is giving in to the inertia of conventional in-person policy. What’s striking though, is that these same companies resisting fully-remote staffs are also the ones who create the core tools for remote workers across all industries. The companies that enabled remote work around the globe, it seems, no longer believe in it themselves.
Google began mandating that workers return to the office in April of last year, although it’s unclear how much the policy was enforced among its rank and file. By cracking down on in-person attendance now, Google joins a slate of major tech companies who have recently taken firm stances on formerly soft hybrid policies—and effectively reversed course on remote work.
Not so long ago, tech led the pack in offering flexible work. After using cushy in-office perks—like catered cafeterias and campus commuter shuttles—to compete for talent, the same companies were some of the first to close down in favor of work-from-home when the pandemic hit in the US. Since then, tech companies have become an aggressive recruiter of remote workers—until the last year or so, when major companies like Apple, Amazon, and Meta began to roll back their remote policies.
Google’s memo calls to mind a similar missive issued by Meta, which last week told workers that they’ll need to return to the office three days per week starting this September. And Salesforce—a particularly early adopter of remote work—is now aiming to bribe employees back into the office by pledging to donate to nonprofits for each day they work in-person during a two-week window this month.
But these same companies support remote work and distributed teams around the world, offering software that allows employees to jump on a remote video call, leave comments on a working draft, or send off a quick group DM. Between its docs, sheets, and slides, Google pioneered cloud-based tools that allowed teammates to work side-by-side from anywhere. (And beyond revolutionizing our office work, the products have also catalyzed all kinds of cloud-centric collaboration, from social note-passing to grassroots organizing.)
Those tools power our professional lives, whether it’s in person or apart. And they didn’t just support the remote-work revolution: They made it possible. When the pandemic sent waves of workers home in 2020, Google Meet became a leading space for virtual meetings. Gmail dominates the internet’s email, with more than 1.5 billion global active users. And in 2019, the company marked a milestone of 5 million businesses paying to work on G Suite, Google’s full collection of work tools for productivity and collaboration.
Meanwhile, Salesforce owns Slack, which next to Microsoft Teams, is one of the most widely-adopted messaging tools for work. And Meta rebranded itself on a big bet that people would rather gather—and work—in virtual spaces over IRL ones. While the promise of the metaverse has declined, the appellation still stands (although maybe not on legs).
So why, then, for the wide-ranging reversals on remote work, brought to you by the teams enabling it? Perhaps even big tech doesn’t believe in its own vision—or, at the least, its own products.
If memos are to be believed, tech companies are calling workers back because they think more in-office time is key for relationships on the job. According to recent reporting from the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans who work from home at least some of the time say it hinders their ability to feel connected with co-workers. Notes from Google and Meta, at least, lean on that sentiment.
“We’ve heard from Googlers that those who spend at least three days a week in the office feel more connected to other Googlers, and that this effect is magnified when teammates work from the same location,” Cicconi wrote in the Google memo. “Of course, not everyone believes in ‘magical hallway conversations,’ but there’s no question that working together in the same room makes a positive difference.”
Meta’s memo also points to connection as one of the core reasons the company is compelling its staff to come back to the office, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying that IRL time is key to cross-team connection.
“[O]ur hypothesis is that it is still easier to build trust in person and that those relationships help us work more effectively,” Zuckerberg wrote in a March blog post. “I encourage all of you to find more opportunities to work with your colleagues in person.”
But do those theories square with what their workers actually want? Most hybrid employees, according to Pew, would prefer to spend even more time working from home than they do now. It begs the question, then, what the bosses actually believe in.